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An Incentive Fairy Tale

An Incentive Fairy Tale

Lisa Rosendahl | Simply Lisa

February 18, 2010

Incentives can be like sunshine on a cloudy day, or they can bring in the rain.

No denying incentives, when used properly, can prompt desired behaviors – or is it to impact outcomes? What was it again?? Incentives change behaviors – not outcomes. I know that now because I read Incentive Intelligence and bookmark posts like Incentives – Definitions and Actions – A Primer AGAIN! but let me tell you about someone who did not.

Incentives Gone Bad

Once upon a time there was a leader of a team. The team was not working well together. The leader tried praise, recognition, telling the team what she wanted to see, playing on strengths, problem solving issues, not placing blame, asking questions, acknowledging desired behaviors and more. Basically, she did everything “the book” said a good supervisor could do to encourage behaviors – and it didn’t work.

Then it came to her. She’d reward outcomes achieved when desired behaviors were used. If she rewards her staff for these outcomes, and the behaviors that lead to them, they’d get the idea, point will be made and behaviors will be changed. Genius, pure genius! She rewarded the entire team, at varying levels (based on salary), for the department’s achievements over the year. She handed out the awards at a staff meeting.

The gesture fell flat. Flat as a pancake. No, flat as a crepe.

Program Design … Plus

There were many things wrong with this incentive, starting with the mishmash of behaviors and outcomes, ending with the fact that no one on the team knew an incentive was at the end of the tunnel and everything in between. The incentive wasn’t communicated because, well, the leader didn’t know an incentive was at the end of the tunnel until all other options failed to create a cohesive team.

There was something else amiss here that was much bigger than program design. The leader rewarded her staff for outcomes even though she knew in her heart of hearts they weren’t meeting her expectations.

The award was blackmail. It was a bribe – pure and simple. The leader knew it. Her staff knew it too.

Lessons Learned

Don’t settle or sell your expectations on the cheap. You can’t buy outcomes, you can’t buy committment, and, ok, you can’t buy love. The money spent on the awards paid for a lesson in leadership she could never get from a book, a blog or a seminar and is one she will never forget.



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